Our Opinion: Teacher shortage hits special education particularly hard
September 8, 2016
By The Editorial Board
Maine is one of 49 states with a problem, and it will take a culture change to solve it.
Maine, along with every other state not named Pennsylvania, reports an ongoing and growing shortage of special education teachers.
In some ways, solutions mirror those for the same problem facing the teaching profession as a whole — such as the use of financial incentives to draw talented people into the profession.
But in other, very significant ways, the dearth of special educators is its own dilemma, fitting for a group of teachers who often feel separated from the rest of the school staff.
Hard to Find
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the shortage of special education teachers has been an issue since at least the early 1990s. Today, 49 states report a shortage; broken down further, 51 percent of all school districts and 90 percent of high-poverty districts don’t have enough special educators.
It doesn’t help that the overall pool of candidates is shrinking. In Maine and elsewhere, colleges and universities are awarding fewer education degrees.
The number of education graduates in the University of Maine System, for instance, dropped 36 percent in a decade, and Maine is experiencing teacher shortages in eight different areas of instruction, up from just two — including special education — in the early 1990s.
The shortage of special education teachers, however, is especially acute. School officials throughout the state told the Portland Press Herald recently that hiring this year was harder than ever, and it’s fixing to get harder.
Maine has always allowed teachers to cover special education for up to three years while they work toward certification. Starting next year, all special education teachers will be required to be fully certified, a rule that will affect more than 5 percent of Maine special educators.
That, along with the fact that 30 percent of Maine teachers are expected to retire in the next decade, makes it necessary that Maine address this problem now.
There have been some gains. State education officials, helped by a federal grant, have cut the percentage of special ed teachers without certification by more than half in the last six years, and the number of special ed teachers is up almost 20 percent in that time.
But it’s clearly not enough. The number of special education students in Maine is falling, but not as fast as enrollment overall. And the students are presenting more complicated issues than ever before, educators say.
That has made special education, an enormous responsibility and challenge on its best day, even moreso.
Special education work is complex and stressful. It requires challenging interactions with students and parents. Educators are required to formulate long, detailed education plans for students. They often oversee education technicians and other specialists.
And then there is the enormous amount of paperwork that must be completed, often after work, the only part of the day when there is time.
Those aspects of the job, and its place slightly outside the normal school structure, can leave special education teachers feeling forgotten.
What’s more, special education is often an entry-level job, filled with recent college graduates who are waiting to move on to a regular staff position.
For all these reasons, turnover in special education is twice the rate of other teaching positions.
Financial incentives such as loan forgiveness, higher pay and free certification — all ideas being considered to address the shortage — can help draw people to special education, but it won’t make enough them stay once the difficult days begin.
To retain more special education teachers, a culture change is needed. First, teachers have to be fully prepared for the circumstances and stresses unique to special education, then they have to be fully integrated into the greater school enviroment.
Their contribution has to be understood and recognized by administrators and the rest of the staff, all of whom should have an working knowledge of how special education differs from regular instruction, improving the collaborative and coworking environment.
Only when special education is a valued and fully mainstreamed part of schools will enough teachers choose this difficult but rewarding path.